Victoria Azarenka booked her spot in the second round of the Qatar Open with a 6-2 6-3 win over Svetlana Kuznetsova on Monday. 

It was the first time the pair had faced off since the final of the 2016 Miami Open and Azarenka, who won back-to-back titles in Doha in 2012 and 2013, struck first, eventually claiming the opening set in 44 minutes. 

She needed six match points to see off Kuznetsova in the second set to tee up a last-16 meeting with either Laura Siegemund or Elena Rybakina. 

There was also a win for former world number one Garbine Muguruza, who defeated Veronika Kudermetova 6-2 7-6 (7-4).

"Veronika was a very tough opponent," Muguruza told a media conference. "[I'm] just happy with this win. We played a year ago, and I remember it was a tough match. I'm happy to have closed it in two sets."

Fifth seed Kiki Bertens, meanwhile, was dumped out by a rampant Jelena Ostapenko in straight sets. 

The 2017 French Open champion hit 26 winners on her way to an emphatic 6-0 6-2 win against her Dutch opponent, who was playing her first match in five months following Achilles surgery. 

Anett Kontaveit overcame number seven seed beaten Australian Open finalist Jennifer Brady 6-1 6-2 to set up a second-round clash with Angelique Kerber, who beat Cagla Buyukakcay 6-4 6-2.

In the day's other match, Maria Sakkari beat Mayar Sherif 6-0 6-3. 

Meanwhile, teenage qualifier Clara Tauson shocked number one seed Ekaterina Alexandrova 6-3 6-4 in the first round of the Lyon Open. 

There were also wins for Arantxa Rus, Nina Stojanovic, Timea Babos, Greet Minnen and Fiona Ferro in France. 

Naomi Osaka said she was "really nervous" before facing Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova but showed no signs of that as she breezed into the second round of the Australian Open.

Osaka looked dominant on day one of the first grand slam of the year as she welcomed being able to play in front of a crowd at Melbourne Park, taking only 68 minutes to wrap up a 6-1 6-2 victory.

The US Open champion has beaten Pavlyuchenkova three times in a row after losing when they first met in 2017 but was wary of facing the Russian on Rod Laver Arena.

Third seed Osaka said: "I was really nervous coming into this match. I know that I've played her before, and it was really tough. I just wanted to play well.

"The most recent memory I have of playing her was in the Osaka final [that Osaka won 6-2 6-3 in 2019], so it's always really hard to play someone that good in the first round.

"For me, I feel like it might have also helped in a way because I calmed my nerves because I felt like I couldn't afford to be that nervous. But, yeah, it was a tough match."

Serena Williams and Simona Halep stormed into round two, but the 2016 champion Angelique Kerber crashed out with a 6-0 6-4 defeat to world number 63 Bernarda Pera.

Alison Riske and Wang Qiang were the only other seeds to fall, losing to teenager Anastasia Potapova and qualifier Sara Errani respectively, while Bianca Andreescu made a winning comeback.

 

Williams sisters among major winners to make serene progress

Serena Williams did not look at all troubled by a shoulder problem as she started her latest quest to win a record-equalling 24th major singles title with a 6-1 6-1 demolition of Laura Siegemund.

Her older sister, Venus, also advanced in straight sets, beating Kirsten Flipkens 7-5 6-2.

Iga Swiatek, the French Open champion, was too good for Arantxa Rus, winning 6-1 6-3, and Petra Kvitova got past Greet Minnen 6-3 6-4.

Kerber will not be claiming a fourth major crown this month after falling to Croatia-born American Pera.

 

Halep planning to oust another Australian

Two-time major winner Halep was a cut above Lizette Cabrera, winning 6-2 6-1 in 59 minutes, and is looking forward to facing another Australia in the second round in the form of Ajla Tomljanovic. 

"I like to be here, so I like to play Australians," Halep quipped.

"I feel good. My body is fit. It's always difficult to play a big hitter. So, I have to be strong on my legs, focus on myself and give my best.

"I expected a tough match because I played against her before and I know how it's gonna be. She's a good opponent, a good player, and I will focus just on myself like I do every time, but I'm ready for a good battle."

Andreescu back in business

Andreescu put her injury woes behind her, battling past Mihaela Buzarnescu 6-2 4-6 6-3 in her first match for 15 months.

The Canadian had not played in a grand slam since winning the US Open in 2019 but was back in business on John Cain Arena.

Eighth seed Andreescu said: "After the match, I sat down with my team a little bit, and I'm like, 'Oh, guys, here we go again, those three-setters' and they just started laughing because they obviously knew what they were getting themselves into.

"But those matches are super good for me in my opinion because it really shows that I can scramble when I really need to, or if there's some pressure I can dig my way through it somehow. When my back is against the wall, not only today, but I've noticed throughout my last couple tournaments in 2019, I've been able to pull through with those."

Garbine Muguruza continued her impressive form to book a meeting with Ash Barty in the Yarra Valley Classic final.

Muguruza, the Spanish sixth seed at the WTA 500 event, crushed Marketa Vondrousova 6-1 6-0 on Saturday.

The two-time grand slam champion has lost just 10 games in four matches on her way to the final.

Muguruza lost just eight points on serve against Vondrousova while converting five of 11 break points.

She will meet Barty in the final after the Australian benefited from Serena Williams' withdrawal as the 23-time grand slam winner deals with a shoulder injury.

Naomi Osaka and Victoria Azarenka also withdrew on Saturday from the Gippsland Trophy and Grampians Trophy respectively.

At the Grampians Trophy, Anett Kontaveit was given a passage into the semi-finals, where Maria Sakkari awaits after her 6-4 6-2 win over Angelique Kerber.

Jennifer Brady and Ann Li will meet in the other semi after wins over Barbora Krejcikova and Sorana Cirstea respectively.

Elise Mertens will play the Gippsland Trophy final after Osaka's withdrawal with the Belgian to face Kaia Kanepi, who overcame Ekaterina Alexandrova 6-3 7-6 (8-6) to reach her first WTA decider since 2013.

One in eight women in the Australian Open draw have already won a grand slam title.

One in eight. It is staggering that of the 128 players who set out in the hope of singles glory at Melbourne Park, there are 16 major champions among them, and perhaps never has it been so difficult to predict who will carry off the title.

Compare it to the men's draw, where there are just five grand slam singles winners, and where you would struggle to make a compelling case for any more than three of those this year, with apologies to Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic.

As long-running dynasties near their end on the men's and women's tours, the WTA is a lengthy step ahead of the ATP with a cast of appealing characters already assuming leading roles.

The leader of the pack

Three-time grand slam champion Naomi Osaka is at the forefront of a school of rising stars, but she has impressive rivals for company.

The last four years have seen the 15 women's majors won by 12 different players, whereas in the men's game, Rafael Nadal (6), Novak Djokovic (5), Roger Federer (3) and Dominic Thiem (1) have creamed off all the top prizes in the same period.

Often criticised in the past for a perceived lack of depth, in the years when Serena Williams won seemingly at will, the women's tour has exploded with a rush of bright and young talent.

Osaka is a revelation and a leader, on and off the court. Twice a US Open champion now, and a winner in Australia two years ago, the 23-year-old Japanese star took a powerful stance for racial equality at Flushing Meadows back in September, at the height of Black Lives Matter protests. She wants to achieve even more off the court than on it, where she looks assured of one day leaving an impressive legacy.

If there is any area where Osaka's game falls down it is consistency. She has surprisingly not passed the fourth round in 14 of her 17 grand slam appearances, but on every occasion she has gone beyond that stage it has been en route to lifting a trophy.

In hot pursuit

Last year's three slam champions were, at the times of their triumphs, just 21 (Sofia Kenin - Australian Open), 19 (Iga Swiatek - French Open) and 22 (Osaka - US Open).

The women's game has not seen anything comparable in terms of youthful winners of its blue riband tournaments since 2004, when the 21-year-old Justine Henin won in Australia, Anastasia Myskina landed the Roland Garros title at 22, Maria Sharapova was a 17-year-old bolter to Wimbledon glory and 19-year-old Svetlana Kuznetsova scored a stunning Flushing Meadows victory.

Last year does not touch the 1997 season, when a 16-year-old Martina Hingis won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open, denied a grand slam clean sweep by 19-year-old Iva Majoli's shock French Open final win over the Swiss.

But women's tennis is still seeing a remarkable shift to relative youth.

The 2019 season saw a then 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu scoop a stunning US Open win, while Ash Barty took the French Open.

Andreescu has been sidelined with a knee injury since the 2019 WTA Finals, but she is back for Australia, where Queenslander Barty, now 24, is the home hero.

Brace for the prospect of Andreescu and Barty joining Kenin, Swiatek and Osaka in a group of five who can take the women's game boldly into the post-Williams era.

But the Williams era isn't over

This is true, and again Serena will make another attempt to land that elusive 24th grand slam, the one that would move her level with Margaret Court on the all-time list.

She remains, at the age of 39, a magnificent competitor and a beguiling player, as does sister Venus, who turns 41 in June.

Serena has lost her last four grand slam finals, however, and the most recent run to a title match came almost 18 months ago in New York, where Andreescu had her number.

As the new gang of five threaten to pull away from the old establishment, perhaps Williams is now in the next group, along with the likes of Simona Halep, Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova: still perfectly capable of winning another slam or even multiple slams, but it feels important to strike now.

Serena has not won any of her last 10 slams, making it the longest span in her professional career without winning a major.

Barty party, or Sofia the second?

Osaka begins the Australian Open as favourite with bookmakers, but world number one Barty will have home support and could make that count. How she performs will be keenly watched, given she chose not to travel once the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, sitting out 11 months.

Should Barty get on a roll, hopes will be high she can become the first Australian woman to take the title since Chris O'Neil in 1978. Last year, Barty fell in the semi-finals to Kenin, and she will be eager to land a second slam title.

Kenin, whose intense concentration and steely resolve helped her pull off last year's shock Melbourne win, and follow up with a run to the French Open final, can be a match for anyone. She will be aiming to become the first woman to win back-to-back Australian Open titles since Azarenka in 2012 and 2013.

Success on this level has come perhaps ahead of schedule for the American, and the same can be said for Swiatek, whose demolition of the field at Roland Garros in October made a mockery of her being ranked number 53 in the world.

The teenage Polish player became her country's first grand slam singles champion, and with that status comes the expectation she will follow it up. How that turns out for her will be one of the most intriguing of sub-plots in the new season.

Changing priorities

Halep said in a recent WTA interview that winning an Olympic medal was her "main goal" for 2021, although Osaka will also have the Tokyo Games firmly circled in her diary.

For the likes of those other players among the 16 slam winners in the Melbourne draw, there will be differing targets this year, too.

Angelique Kerber, Sloane Stephens, Jelena Ostapenko and particularly Garbine Muguruza may yet come good again on the big stage at some point this season.

For Venus Williams, Kuznetsova and Samantha Stosur, it may be a case of one final hurrah.

As the likes of Coco Gauff emerge as potential future big-stage winners, and fledgling ambassadors, the women's game looks in safe hands.

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